After a first half that featured 13 combined punts between St. Joseph Academy and John Paul II, it became fitting that the outcome of the North Florida Football Conference championship was all but decided by one.
On the game’s 15th punt, midway through the third quarter of an offensively challenged contest, Panthers punt returner Sam Smith fumbled a punt.
Very easily the visiting Flashes could have been called for interference, but the non-call resulted in St. Joseph’s recovery at the Panthers’ 16-yard line.
After coming up short on three downs inside the 5, St. Joseph kicker Carlos Sanchez made an 18-yard field goal to finally change momentum.
The Flashes added a touchdown a drive later following a big punt return, and St. Joseph went on to win 10-0 and claim the NFFC title on Thursday night at Gene Cox Stadium.
“I said something to the white hat and usually I’m a little more boisterous than that, but I was upset for Sam even running up,” Panthers coach Cedric Jones said. “That’s youth though. That’s 10th grade, middle of the moment and never been in that type of game before. It happens.”
Smith nearly made up for the mistake following St. Joseph running back Jakobi Dasher’s 2-yard touchdown plunge.
He returned the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown, but John Paul II (6-4) was flagged for a block in the back.
The Panthers never recovered and sophomore quarterback Brian Woodend’s third interception of the game with 6:37 left in the fourth quarter all but sealed John Paul II’s fate.
But the game wasn’t decided there, it was decided oddly enough on special teams. The two teams combined to punt 19 times.
Panthers receiver Matt Cowdrey blocked one in the first half that looked like it may go for a 40-yard touchdown, but John Paul II couldn’t field it cleanly on the run.
“That was the weirdest game I’ve been a part of,” Jones said. “Both offenses sputtered a lot. They have a good, balanced offense. We were off tonight on our passing. It was just defense. You don’t see that much defense anymore. It was a good game.”
For St. Joseph, it capped a perfect 10-0 season, winning an NFFC title in its first try, just as JPII was trying to do.
“They continued to fight even with all the crazy stuff that happened in the game,” said third-year Flashes coach Matt Olesnevich, who was once JPII’s head coach and athletic director.
“It’s obviously every team’s goal to be undefeated and win a championship. To be a 150-year-old school, it’s pretty special.”
After a first half that saw St. Joseph post just 93 yards of offense and JPII record 53, the two teams did finally move the ball late, but only after special teams loosened the tension.
Tre Preston’s big 25-yard punt return flipped the field. He finished with 62 yards rushing and 15 receiving.
All the struggle was worth it.
“We needed a big play and I was just trying to help my team,” Preston said.
“We loved each other more and more every day. It was great to come together and win the championship.”
JPII fought to the end, even after the late interception, even when it seemed time wasn’t on their side.
Getting a championship of its own will have to wait until next year, but the ride was at least fun for senior Mark Woodend, he of nine punts on the night.
“I knew we could make a play somewhere, but we missed our opportunities,” Woodend said. “They played well.
“This was the best year I’ve ever played. We all fought hard all year. It stinks it has to end like this, but that’s how it is.”
ST. JOSEPH 10, JOHN PAUL II 0
St. Joseph 0 0 10 0 — 10
John Paul II 0 0 0 0 — 0
SJA — Carlos Sanchez 18 field goal
SJA — Jakobi Dasher 2 run (Sanchez kick)
Passing— St. Joseph: Matt Considine 3-15-21-0-0, Tre Preston 0-1-0-0-0; John Paul II: Brian Woodend 11-32-107-0-3
Rushing— St. Joseph: Tre Preston 15-62, Jakobi Dasher 11-53, James Drysdale 16-63, Considine 5-(-4), Noah Thrift 1-(-1); John Paul II: Mark Woodend 11-26, Sam Smith 2-(-1), Jordan Latimer 1-3, Taylor Janicki 1-(-3), B. Woodend 7-(-9), Bradley Deanda 2-(-22)
Receiving— St. Joseph: Preston 2-15, Thrift 1-6; John Paul II: Matt Cowdrey 2-26, Smith 3-31, M. Woodend 1-5, Janicki 1-21, Aidan Murtha 4-24
St. Joseph (10-0), John Paul II (6-4)